Overcoming Local Barriers to Regional Transportation: Understanding Transit System Fragmentation from an Institutionalist Framework

Metropolitan transportation systems (MTSs) often operate in a fragmented political and administrative geography. For example, the 50 largest metropolitan statistical areas have, in total, more than 400 transit operating agencies (National Transit Database, 2014), and more than 5,000 general-purpose local governments (U.S. Census of Governments, 2012). MTSs face two persistent problems: (1) local governments that opt-out of fiscal or functional participation in the MTS and (2) lack of meaningful administrative coordination among transit agencies. Both can lead to service gaps that impair connectivity, coverage, and accessibility. Travel knows no jurisdictional boundaries, and a truly equitable system is one that affords access for all residents to employment, education, health care, and a range of services and opportunities throughout the metropolitan area. This requires a system without major service gaps, and depends on the participation of all local jurisdictions in their region’s transportation services. The project team develops a novel theoretical framework, grounded in new institutionalism, that conceptualizes local decisions about regional transportation as products of both rules (formal institutions like state statutes or organizational bylaws) and norms (meaning informal institutions that shape social behaviors within organizations). The proposed research develops a metropolitan Transportation Governance Index (TGI) for the largest 200 metropolitan regions with two or more transit agencies. The TGI is unique in that it quantifies the average propensity toward regionalist and localist behaviors within a metropolitan area. The project team develops the TGI first for six metropolitan regions that have more than one million residents and exhibit superficial institutional complexity, before expanding it to include the 200 most populous metropolitan areas with two or more transit agencies. The team's work will allow testing of propositions about the relationship between the institutional environment with which the regional transportation system functions, and how this environment shapes the regional equity of the MTS. It will afford researchers insights into the extent to which the rules and norms of governance create barriers to transportation equity by discouraging cooperation within the MTS. The index the project team produces will help identify laws that cause fragmentation of transit agencies, and should be useful to policy-makers in cities, transit agencies, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and state legislatures that are looking to ameliorate inequitable transportation and system fragmentation.